Finding your place in the Universe of Content

Writers are sponges. When they become interested in a subject, they absorb everything related to the topic. The process can be a bit, let’s say, obsessive. They start telling others about their interest, and additional articles and books head their way.

Author and journalist Sam Anderson, in a recent interview with Longform, said, “I love being in that place where everything is just coming in, and everything is potentially important, and I’m underlining every great sentence that John McPhee has ever written and then I’m typing it up into this embarrassingly long set of reading notes, documents, organized by books.”

But then, Anderson notes, the process has to shift. “And then when you sit down with it as a writer who has a job, and his job is to fill a little window of a magazine or website, all of that ecstatic inhaling has to stop. You realize that you’ve collected approximately 900,000% of what you need or could ever use.”

It’s not fair to your reader or your subject to just release your research notes. You need to find the narrative within it, by telling the reader what’s important, and presenting an angle that’s still fair to your subject.

Anderson calls this pile of material the Universe of Content, which creates an epic landscape, “a truly sublime panorama.” He argues that the writer can’t transmit that landscape to the reader—it exists only for the writer—so the writer’s job is to find a path through that world that shows off the best parts of that landscape.

You have to decide how long the path can reasonably be—are you writing a short article, or a book?

What does your reader need? What can you discard now, but return to later?

Your landscape can contain multiple paths; i.e., you can use the material in different ways. Can you mark a path for one group of readers, and another path for a different group?

You can’t keep inhaling forever. Your exhale can be your first draft. Then you inhale a new way of looking at it (revision). Then exhale your revised draft.

How about you? How do you approach a pile of research?

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